“I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1).
(Note: I write as a Southern Baptist with little familiarity with how other denominations do their worship services. Therefore, what follows may be of limited value to some of our readers.)
Some tasks we cannot shunt off to someone else. Some key responsibilities we cannot hire others to perform for us. Leading the worship service is one of the pastoral essentials. The pastor is the leader.
This is not to say the minister will physically lead the hymns. (In some churches, he does, but in most someone else does this.) He will not pray every prayer or be the only one reading the Scripture or promoting upcoming events. But ultimately, it all goes back to him. The pastor is like the stagecoach driver. He does not pull the coach but holds the reins to the six horses that do.
1) Let the pastor give leadership, guidance, and direction to all aspects of the service.
This calls for advance planning, usually in a weekly staff meeting. (The pastor who has no weekly staff planning meeting is setting himself and the church up for great confusion and a multitude of conflicts. A thousand problems can be headed off by regularly sitting down with the other ministers or key leaders to talk out issues, plan special events, synchronize the calendar, and make decisions about ministries.)
With one leader, the minister works on the choice of hymns, with another on other features in the service, whether a video, testimony, promotion, drama, or something else, and with another on preparation for the service. The latter involves the greeters, ushers, displays, and physical attractiveness (yes, this includes making sure the bathrooms are clean, attractive and well-supplied). Some of this is done one-on-one; some of it in the full gathering.
As the “overseer of the church”–Acts 20:28–the minister is the point person, giving direction and oversight to everything.
Note: As the new pastor of a church struggling with financial issues, there being precious little money for “extras,” I began designating money occasionally into a “pastor’s ministry fund.” When the leader of the children’s choirs requested $100 for refreshments, I asked the bookkeeper to take the money from the pastor’s fund. At this, the deacon serving as the unpaid business administrator balked. “The children’s choir is not ‘pastoral ministry.’” I said, “My friend, everything taking place in this church is pastoral ministry. If I use that money to buy bathroom tissue, that too is pastoral ministry.”
2) The minister is the one leading the worship.
Even if you have a staffer who is called “worship leader,” it’s a misnomer. You as the shepherd of the congregation lead them in worship. You do it personally, and you do it indirectly through others, and throughout all of it, you set the example.
You are worshiping the Lord Jesus Christ in this service, and the congregation should know that.
You begin the service (i.e., you are the first one at the pulpit to speak) by giving direction to what will take place here today. When you step away from the platform then, and sit with your family until the next time you rise to speak, you should fully participate. Sing the hymns heartily, and follow everything taking place. Be present, and not distracted.
Note: The time to set this pattern is when the new pastor has his first staff meeting. He makes it clear–without ever saying the actual words–that he is interested in everything taking place and that “we are going for excellence in every detail.” In some churches, the music director has assumed control of the first half of the service and may resent the pastor’s intrusion into “his” area. The new pastor should learn this ahead of time and deal with it personally and privately, rather than springing it on the unsuspecting staffer in the meeting. But absolutely no one is granted their own time in the worship service without being accountable to the minister. Since God and the congregation will hold the pastor accountable, he may as well bite the bullet and take the role.
3) The minister should begin the service clearly and positively.
Let the pastor walk to the pulpit and say loudly, confidently, and from memory, some clear and uplifting verse of Scripture.
“This is the day the Lord hath made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
“I will call upon the Lord who is greatly to be praised! So shall I be saved from my enemies. The Lord liveth! and blessed be the Rock, and let the God of my salvation be exalted!”
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines; though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food; though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls. Yet, I will exult in the Lord! I will rejoice in the God of my salvation! The Lord God is my Rock, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet; He causes me to walk on my high places!”
And after calling out that verse, lead in prayer. What kind of prayer? Keep reading.
Note: I’ve been in worship services where someone begins the service by silliness, by making goofball remarks to the choir, by referencing last night’s football game, or by teasing some member of the church. But perhaps nothing irks me more than the leader who asks for a response from the congregation–“Isn’t this a beautiful day?” or “Are you glad to be in the Lord’s house today?”–and then fusses at the people for their weak answer. Oh great, I think. We’re starting our worship service by fussing at the Lord’s people.
We can do better than this, people!
4) Let your prayers be well-thought out ahead of time.
Not written, of course, but know what you want to say and plan the best way to express it.
Whether the invocation at the beginning or a pastoral prayer inside the service, the minister should not do this off the cuff, making it up as he goes. If he does, it will almost always be shallow, superficial, and heavily dependent on clichés.
I have a strong suggestion along that line: Pray the way they did in Scriptures. And, since this is more involved than the rest of these suggestions, we’ll add it on at the end of the article. Some will want to print out that portion and look more deeply into the scriptures cited.
Note: We recall how the Lord’s disciples pointed out that John (the Baptist) taught his disciples how to pray, and they would like Him to show them how. I do not wonder that most church members never ask their pastors to “teach us to pray.” The scattered, shallow, superficial and impromptu things we pastors display under the heading of prayer do not inspire anyone to ask us for direction. That should be treated as an indictment against us pastors and should be remedied post-haste. See the addendum.
5) Plan your ending of the service, pastor.
So many pastors let the service fizzle to a conclusion, with him standing there trying to remember additional announcements to be made, afternoon meetings someone needs to be reminded of, or worse, rehashing the sermon. We can do better than this.
The service should end as positively and strongly as it began, preferably on the same theme or even using the identical scripture which was quoted at the top.
6) Early in the next staff meeting, ask for a discussion on the worship service.
What worked best, and what was least effective? What can we do better? Did you hear any comments, positive or negative?
Note: The pastor should praise those who did well. A public compliment before one’s peers carries great weight, and usually ranks higher on the appreciation-scale than a private note. However, private handwritten notes are always in order.
7) Staying within your basic order of worship, some variety is almost always appreciated.
Insert a testimony or a brief video. Have the choir enter down the aisle singing the opening call to worship. Interview a member with an interesting story to tell. Put variety into your sermon.
Go on-line and watch other church’s services, looking for ideas that work.
Note: Do not overdo variety. People get disoriented if they are unable to follow the service and have no idea what you are trying to accomplish or the nature of the theme.
Addendum: How the minister can lead public prayers as Scripture demonstrates
Every imaginable kind of prayer is prayed in Scripture, everything from one-sentence prayers to one word pleas (“Help!”) to lengthy, unforgettable, one-of-a-kind intercessions.
It’s the special, public prayers that we have in mind here.
Look at Acts 4:23-31. Peter and John had been arrested, held overnight, and warned against preaching in the name of Jesus. They returned to the congregation–presumably meeting in someone’s house–and reported all of this. Then, they prayed.
In their prayer, they began by REMINDING THE LORD (that’s a biggie; so stay with us here) of 5 things– Who the Lord is, What He has done, What He has said (promised), Our present situation, and Our requests.
1. Who He is. “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them….”
2. What He has done. (above)
3. What He has said (promised). “Who, by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage….?’”
4. What our situation is. “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur….”
5. And finally, what we are requesting today. “And now, take note of their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all confidence….”
The business of “reminding the Lord” is based on Isaiah 62:6-7. “You who remind the Lord, take no rest for yourselves, and give Him no rest until He make Jerusalem a praise in all the earth.” The Hebrew word is MAZKIR, built on “ZAKAR,” meaning “remember.” The M (meme) in front of the word makes it “to cause to remember.”
Mazkir was the title of an official in the court of David and Solomon and presumably other Israeli rulers (see 2 Samuel 8:16 and I Kings 4:3). Usually translated “recorders,” these officials functioned like court reporters of our day. They kept notes on the king’s doings, rulings, court orders, summit conferences, and the like. As the need arose, the king would call in the Mazkir. “What did I promise King Ben-hadad the last time we met in Ammon?” Or, “Has this defendant ever been before me? If so, what was my verdict at that time?”
The Mazkir’s good notes enabled the king to make wise decisions.
“Your Heavenly Father knows what things you have need of before you ask Him,” said our Lord in Matthew 6:8.
So there we have it. The Father already knows, but we are to remind Him.
Why should we be asked to remind God of anything? You’ll think of fifty answers to this, but most will come down to the simple fact that God wants us to have faith, to believe in Him, and to “bring our burdens to the Lord,” as the old hymn puts it.
I am suggesting–urging is more like it–that in your most important prayer in the worship service, pastor, you will have given thought to planning your prayer based on this little formula used by God’s people to one degree or the other all through Scripture: Reminding the Lord of Who He is, what He has done, what He has promised, and then, what our present situation is, and finally, what we are requesting today.
I am not saying all prayers in Scripture were this way. There were all kinds of prayers prayed by the Lord’s faithful. But the big ones–like David’s dedication of the temple material in I Chronicles 29:10ff, Solomon’s dedication of the temple itself in I Kings 8:22ff, Jehoshaphat’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 20:5ff, and the one in Acts 4–all followed this plan.
Quick short prayers are always in order. The great literacy pioneer Frank Laubach called these “prayer arrows.” But nothing inspires a people to pray, and lifts their standards of what takes place in prayer, like a well-thought out prayer that follows this pattern.
One final thought. Over the years, I have sometimes heard unthinking preachers berate longer formal prayers that begin with something like “O God, Thou who didst make the heavens and the earth, who spoke the worlds into being….” and so forth. I can hear one now saying, “Why do we do such silliness? God knows Who He is! He doesn’t need us padding our prayers this way!”
The well-intentioned preacher (we assume) was dead wrong. While we may want to update our references to something like “Lord, you raised up men and women to found this church. You put it in the hearts of your people to bring the gospel to our city. And now, the baton has been handed to us. We want to be faithful in this our hour.”
But let us have done with prayers that bore the congregation and insult the Father. It’s a safe bet that if our prayers are boring us, they could use some attention.